Celebrities can appear to have it all – the looks, the dream lifestyle and career. Some even suggest fame puts you above the law but in fact the reverse is increasingly true.
Rarely has there been a year like 2014 in which celebrities have found first hand how the criminal justice system works. Rolf Harris, Stuart Hall, Max Clifford and Dave Lee Travis have been convicted. However others, including Jimmy Tarbuck, Jim Davidson, Paul Gambaccini and Freddie Starr, faced the unwelcome glare of publicity before any proceedings against them were dropped. In the case of my client, Tulisa, she underwent a trial before walking free as the spotlight turned on her accuser. Ordinary people who find themselves in court these days are always shocked by the one-sided nature of the process as traditional protections that used to guarantee a fair trial are stripped away by governments keen to look tough on crime.
But on top of the ordeal of fighting a criminal charge, celebrities become involuntary participants in a very stressful reality show. At times it can look like the criminal justice system too is becoming a branch of showbiz. And those who tread the celebrity tightrope know full well the distance to the ground.
The adverse effects of publicity usually begin at the investigation stage. Ordinary defendants might hope to escape publicity except on the most gruesome crimes but not so for a celebrity. What is the impact of this on the parties to a criminal case – the police, the witnesses, the judge, and the jury?
The biggest danger is of a case being created in the first case without any real foundation. Celebrities as much as anyone else may have committed an offence, but there is a troubling line of cases that were initiated without any good reason by malicious or publicity-seeking liars. When those liars are also members of the press, as in the case of the Fake Sheikh, the defendant faces a double whammy of media power as well as a state-funded prosecution.
In my experience, celebrity suspects are generally treated with courtesy by police, but it’s also clear that the police relish these encounters. They are as interested as anyone else in the lives of the rich and famous and eager to throw themselves into an investigation in a way they never would otherwise – which in turn makes any eventual trial longer and tougher.
Once the police have investigated, the case goes to the Crown Prosecution Service who must decide whether a prosecution is in the public interest. Generally, the CPS are pretty unwilling to ditch a case on public interest grounds where the defendant is a politician, celebrity or wealthy person. No doubt there is a fear of being denounced in the media as “soft on crime” but sometimes it looks a bit like reverse discrimination.
A celebrity under the spotlight is therefore far more likely to end up on trial. The police and CPS now come under further media pressure to win their case. The celebrity case will get much more attention than a mere street robber or dangerous driver, with extraordinary levels of resource applied to prove a celebrity defendant guilty, even on a minor charge.
Once on trial, we look to the judiciary to mete out impartial justice. Unfortunately, a judge can be as starstruck as anyone else. It is comical on occasions to see how keenly a judge grabs a celebrity case and hangs on to it . It is not necessarily the finest specimens of the judiciary who think in this way.
Once in court, the glare of publicity may start to help the defendant. No judge can afford to be ill-tempered, irrational or manifestly biased with the world’s press watching.
Yet, the verdict is another matter – whether from a judge or jury. There is no doubt that celebrity trials are demanding and resource-intensive as police go to extra lengths to drum up evidence and discredit defence witnesses.
The little piece of information that turns the case round for the defence team is often something quite obscure – as we saw recently when we insisted on an interview with the driver who took Tulisa home after her own encounter with the fake Sheikh. It was not what he told us, but the fact he had spoken to us, that led Mazher Mahmood into the fatal error of changing his evidence in front of a Crown Court Judge.
Sadly, not everyone can afford to have this amount of work done on their case. Legal aid has been cut to the very bone, with insufficient funds for the defence team to “turn over every stone”. Fighting a criminal charge without legal aid is an expensive business, but an innocent celebrity defendant may feel it is worth paying to prevent a miscarriage of justice. Where they can manage it they have often walked free, from Rebekah Brooks to Tulisa.
The joy of an innocent defendant who gets acquitted is one of the rewards of this job. But what surprises many people is that despite winning their case they do not get their costs refunded by the state. This can seem very unfair to an innocent person who has faced a hugely well-funded prosecution that has sold lots of newspapers along the way.